The dating scene for straight, single women is already fraught with “modelizers” and “freaks,” at least according to the ladies of Sex and the City, but it looks like the pool of eligible bachelors may be about to get smaller, according to a recent study published in Environmental Health that found women exposed to high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are significantly less likely to give birth to boys.

PCBs have been given a dirty name, and rightly so. This group of chemicals causes cancer as well as adverse health effects in lab animals. Not long after General Electric dumped about a million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River, contaminating the waterway and making the fish in it unsafe to eat, the EPA banned PCB production. But the persistent little buggers’ ability to bioaccumulate — a fancy word for chemicals increasing in concentration as they move up the food chain — means that we’ll be seeing them for a long time in meat, dairy, eggs and fish.

Though environmental PCBs levels have decreased since the ban took effect in 1976, their toxic tale of woe isn’t over yet. Because industry can no longer make PCBs, it has since created similar compounds that often show up in flame retardants. The production of these chemicals is rapidly increasing, the study’s lead author Irva Hertz-Picciotto told the New York Times. One especially worrisome compound is polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs: They’re structurally very similar to PCBs, extremely persistent in the environment, and can bioaccumulate. Adding these toxic chemicals to items like drapes, carpets, furniture upholstery and the plastic casings of electronics makes them difficult to burn, according to the Michigan Network for Children’s Environmental Health, an environmental group advocating the ban of certain types of PBDEs. 

Currently, 10 states regulate use of two of the three types of PDBEs (penta- and octa-BDE). And Dell, Apple, Samsung and many other electronics companies already do or will soon meet fire safety standards without using the third type, deca-BDE. Additionally, mattress companies Sealy, Simmons and Serta do not use deca-BDE in their products, and IKEA sells only PBDE-free office furniture.

Despite these actions, PBDE levels are increasing, according to study co-author Todd Jusko, and widespread PBDE contamination has been reported in human beings, wildlife and foods. While the federal government drags its feet on banning PBDEs, consumers can minimize their exposure. The Environmental Working Group provides a list of PBDE-free manufacturers and products. And The Green Guide’s online shopper’s card offers recommendations like broiling and trimming the fat from meat and fish as well as drinking skim milk, which is PBDE- and dioxin-free, to maintain a more PBDE-free life.

Story by Jessica A. Knoblauch. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008. The story was added to

Copyright Environ Press 2008

A new kind of PCB?
Industry can no longer make PCBs but similar compounds often show up in flame retardants. The production of these chemicals is rapidly increasing.